John Street

Pages 111-115

Survey of London: Volume 18, St Martin-in-The-Fields II: the Strand. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1937.

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The southern side of John Street between Adam and Robert Streets was recently demolished with the remainder of the island block. The plans of the houses generally conformed to type, as will be seen by referring to the plan (Plate 66). Nos. 1–4 at the eastern end were united as the Adelphi Hotel. The corner house had the characteristic ornamental pilaster treatment to the exterior, while the entrance which was in Adam Street had a decorative door-case with side lights divided by pilasters and an ornamental frieze and dentilled cornice (Plate 91a). The ceilings of the principal rooms were adorned with painted or plaster panels—similar to those in other houses in the street—and the mantelpieces were carved wood or marble. A charming wall treatment to the stair landing in No. 9 is shown on Plate 88a. It consisted of a semicircular niche within a frame of fluted Ionic pilasters with a panelled frieze containing modelled figures.

Nos. 13 and 14, west of Robert Street, remain. The entrance doorway to No. 13 with its tasteful cast-iron lamp brackets is shown on Plate 100a. Plates 103a and 103b illustrate the ceilings to the principal rooms of No. 13.

The most important building on the north side of the street is that of the Royal Society of Arts. It was especially designed for the Society by Robert Adam. The charming front (Plate 93), in brick with stone dressings, represents an architectural composition of three vertical bays, formed by the application of attached Ionic columns the height of the first and second floors, with the ground storey acting as a podium. The decorative frieze to the main entablature has a broad central panel inscribed "Arts and commerce promoted." Relief is afforded to the plain tympanum of the pediment by a circular window with radiating bars. The main entrance has double doors in a wood casing with side lights divided by Doric columns and pilasters which support a decorative frieze and cornice. To the middle bay of the first floor in a large semicircular arched recess is a three-light window, divided by small Ionic columns with the centre light arched and the spandrel between the two arches occupied with plaster decoration in the shape of a fan. A further decorative feature is an ornamental band at the second-floor sill level between the columns.

The chief room on the ground floor, now the library, has handsome twin marble mantelpieces on opposite sides (Plates 95 and 96a). (fn. n1) These, according to the original specification, cost £80 each. Four fluted columns with block entablatures divide the room and support the floor of the lecture room over. The main staircase is in stone with iron balustrading. It originally continued to the upper floors, but alterations have been recently carried out at the first-floor level and the wall has been pierced and columns inserted, forming a screen to the landing (Plate 96b). Similar work has been carried out on the ground floor and the entrance lobby has been increased on either side (Plate 99b). The lecture hall, formerly the meeting-room, with its famous paintings, is approached from the first floor, and as the seating has been turned round to face eastwards, steps have had to be inserted to the annexe (see the plan on Plate 94). Plates 98a and 98b illustrate two mantelpieces in No. 19, and their contemporary iron grates. No. 20 has a wood door casing (Plate 100b), and an ornamental ceiling with radiating ribs and plaster medallions in light relief (Plate 102).

The portion of Durham House Street leading into John Street was originally called James Street. Isaac D'Israeli lived at No. 2, James Street before his marriage in 1803, as did Caleb Whitefoord, the diplomatist, in 1803–4. At the corner house (formerly No. 1, James Street, now No. 16, John Street) lived Thomas Rowlandson, the artist and caricaturist, from 1803 until his death there on 22nd April, 1827. Behind this house was a chapel which was used for a time by a body of dissenters but which was afterwards absorbed into Coutts' Bank.

Figure 31:

Plan showing Coutts' premises in James Street and John Street

The Little Theatre on the north side of John Street stands partly on the site of the open space which was kept clear in the original Adelphi scheme in order to suit the convenience of Thomas Coutts and partly on the site of the chapel in James Street. A banking hall and offices were built on the open space early in the nineteenth century, the buildings being kept low so that the view from the windows in Coutts' premises in the Strand should still be unimpeded. Early in the present century the chapel and banking hall were gutted but the external walls were utilised for the theatre and the upper tier of the old bank vaults adapted to form cloakrooms and dressing-rooms. The lower tiers or "great vaults" were cut off and let as wine cellars. The Little Theatre was first opened in 1910 by Miss Gertrude Kingston. On 4th September, 1917, it was wrecked by a German bomb, though fortunately no lives were lost and the vaults and main walls were uninjured. The theatre was reopened in 1920. (fn. 323) At the north-west end of James Street were Coutts' stables.

Condition of Repair.

The houses remaining are in good condition.

Ground Landlords.

Nos. 13 and 14, Mr. G. H. Drummond; Nos. 20 and 21, Messrs. E. Foster & Co. The Royal Society of Arts building is the property of the Society.

Historical Notes.

Nos. 1–4, The Adelphi Hotel.—These four houses were originally in separate occupations. (fn. n2) Antonio Zucchi, who lived at No. 3, had in 1754 accompanied Robert Adam in his tour through Italy and Dalmatia, sketching architectural remains. In 1766 Adam invited him to England and they collaborated on the interior decoration of a number of houses, including several in the Adelphi. Zucchi and Angelica Kauffmann between them were responsible for the painted panels in many of the ceilings there. The two artists were married in July, 1781, when they left England for Italy. (fn. 119)

John Reynolds, the first occupant of No. 4, was a Whig attorney who acted for Chatham, Wilkes and other prominent politicians of the day. His son, Frederic, who afterwards attained some fame as a dramatist, was a lively boy at the time, and in his reminiscences records many anecdotes of Garrick and his circle, and of other residents in the Adelphi. In particular young Reynolds and his friends were the plague of Dr. Graham, the back of whose house on the Terrace was opposite that of No. 4, John Street. From the first-floor window they indulged themselves in discharging paper pellets "with all the force of fingers, thumbs and arms, full against the eager visages of the Doctor's patients." (fn. 324) It was perhaps with feelings of relief that in 1782 the neighbours learnt that by a sudden reverse of fortune, John Reynolds had been forced to give up his town house and flee the country.

William Osborn, the owner of the Adelphi Tavern on the opposite corner of John Street, gradually bought up these houses and founded Osborn's, later the Adelphi Hotel. Osborn took a personal pride in his kitchen, which he described as his "elaboratory," and his hotel became world famous. Among many notable visitors there may be mentioned Edward Gibbon (in 1787, after the completion of The Decline and Fall); the Queen of the Sandwich Islands (in 1825, see p. 110); and the immortal Snodgrass (Pickwick Papers).

Nos. 6 and 7.—These two houses were from 1834 onwards known as Adelphi Chambers. They had during the term of their existence a large number of residents, among whom journalists and artists predominated. Edward Du Bois, wit and miscellaneous writer, was at No. 6 in 1834–44. John Douglas Cook, editor of the Saturday Review, was at No. 7 in 1844, and Robert Ormsby, classical scholar and biographer, lived there in 1850.

Nos. 8 and 9.—John D'Aigremont, who held the lease of both these houses, let them out in tenements. During the nineteenth century they were mostly occupied as offices. The Index Society was housed in No. 8 in 1885, when H. B. Wheatley, the compiler of many books on London and the editor of what was until recently the standard edition of Pepys' Diary, was its secretary.

Lord Snell, in his Men, Movements and Myself, records that the London School of Economics "began its career in the year 1895 in three small rooms on the ground floor of No. 9, John Street in the Adelphi. It had at the beginning no library, and no place where students could work: the rooms were dark and depressing, but they were conveniently situated and close to the lecture room of the Society of Arts where some of the more popular lectures were given."

No. 17.—The original numbering of John Street was very irregular, and, until 1907, this house was numbered 11. The architect, Owen Jones, who was appointed superintendent of the works of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and who was responsible for much of the interior decoration of the Crystal Palace, had rooms here in 1841. Six years later William Pare, a disciple of Robert Owen, and one of the founders of the Co-operative Movement, occupied chambers here. John Scott Russell, civil engineer, was here for a short time in 1847, when he was appointed secretary of the Society of Arts. In more recent times Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, the creator of "Old Bill," Granville Barker and Cedric Hardwicke have had chambers here.

Nos. 13 and 14.—These two houses, which are on the south side of John Street between Robert Street and York Buildings, have always been let out as chambers or offices. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution had its headquarters in No. 14 in the middle years of the nineteenth century. More recently the house has contained the office of the surveyor of the Adelphi Estate. William (afterwards Sir William) Lawrence lived at No. 13 in 1806–8, when he was a young practitioner. He became professor of anatomy and surgery to the College of Surgeons in 1815, and later was for 33 years lecturer on surgery at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1847–50 John D. Bishop, a professor of a very different sort, lived at No. 14. His subject was "phalacromiasy" and he dealt, presumably, in hair restoratives. Kate Bishop and her daughter, Marie Lohr, formerly lived at No. 14, and Edmund Gwenn has for many years occupied chambers here. From 1868 until his death in 1902 John Francis Bentley had his office in No. 13, and it was here that he designed Westminster Cathedral.

Nos. 18 and 19, John StreetThe Royal Society of Arts.— In 1770 the Society of Arts, which had been formed in 1754 by William Shipley, found its premises in the Strand inadequate for its needs, and advertised in the daily papers for suitable accommodation. The brothers Adam thereupon offered to include a house for the Society in their Adelphi scheme, and, after much discussion, an agreement was reached by which the Adams were to have a premium of £1,170 and a rent of £200 a year for the house. The foundation stone was laid in 1772 by Lord Romney, and in 1774 the Society entered into possession.

The building, which except for some minor internal alterations has remained practically undisturbed till the present day, consists of two houses, one of which was intended for the private residence of the secretary. There has, however, always been a communication between the houses on the ground and first floors, and in recent times one has been made on the second floor also. Arthur Aikin, the chemist and scientific writer, was secretary from 1817 until 1840, and in that capacity occupied No. 19. The last secretary to live on the premises was Sir George Grove, the author of the standard Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

When the Society first took over its new premises it decided to invite a number of artists to paint historical and allegorical pictures for the decoration of the meeting-room. This scheme fell through owing to the refusals of the artists, led by Sir Joshua Reynolds, to participate in it, but in 1777 James Barry, then a young and little-known painter, offered to undertake the whole work himself, provided that the Society paid for the materials. This offer was accepted, and Barry was given a free hand to carry out his ideas. By 1783 his six enormous pictures were completed. The series was intended to illustrate the maxim "that the obtaining happiness, as well individual as public, depends on cultivating the human faculties. To prove the truth of this doctrine, the first picture exhibits mankind in a savage state, full of imperfection, inconvenience and misery. The second represents a Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to Ceres and Bacchus. The third, The Victors at Olympia. The fourth, Navigation, or the Triumph of the Thames. The fifth, the Distribution of Rewards by the Society, and the sixth, Elysium, or the State of Final Retribution." Barry received the proceeds (£503 12s.) of a public exhibition of these pictures, but no other payment. The pictures have always been carefully treated and regularly cleaned, and they are still in good condition (Plates 97a and 97b). In 1846 the room was redecorated by D. R. Hay, though the pictures remained in situ.

The Society of Arts building was one of the first in London to be fitted with electric light. At its first installation in 1882 the current was obtained from a dynamo driven by a gas engine.

The Royal Society of Arts was formed "for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce." In the list of its early members are to be found most of the famous names of the second half of the eighteenth century (fn. n3) and through their instrumentality and through the incentive of prizes offered for good work and invention it secured the promotion of its objects. In many fields in which the Society was the pioneer its work is now carried on by independent associations, e.g., the Royal Academy of Arts was founded as a result of the success of a public exhibition held by the Society in 1760; the Colonial and Imperial Institutes have taken over the Society's work of developing industry and agriculture in the colonies; and the Royal Agricultural Society, which was founded in 1838, continued the development of agriculture in which the Society, with the help of Arthur Young, had until then been the prime mover. (fn. n4)

Figure 32:

Plan of Nos. 20 and 21, John Street and No. 18, Adam Street


  • n1. A clause in the agreement made with the Society in 1772 by Robert and James Adam runs: "The bricks in all the walls to be sound and well burned…the strings, columns and entablature of the front to be of Portland Stone and the great stairs from the hall of the secretary's house to the two pair storey to be likewise of Portland Stone…Two handsome marble chimney pieces to be put in the great room of the value of £80 each and marble faces and neat carved wooden mouldings in the other apartments." The picture shown above the fireplace is of the Union Bridge near Berwick-on-Tweed. It was painted by Alexander Nasmyth for Sir Samuel Brown, the inventor of the chain link used in suspension bridges, and was bequeathed to the Society in 1861 by Lady Brown.
  • n2. Most writers on the Adelphi have stated that the Adelphi Tavern was on the south-east corner of John Street and afterwards became Osborn's (or the Adelphi) Hotel, but the evidence of the rate-books is conclusive that the Adelphi Tavern was on the north-east corner at No. 22, John Street, and that William Osborn subsequently moved to Nos. 1–4. Frederic Reynolds, in recounting a story of his boyhood, when he lived at No. 4, speaks of Osborn as "the proprietor of the Hotel opposite us."
  • n3. Among the early medallists of the Society were: Sir Joseph Banks (1763); George Romney (1763); John Flaxman (1766); Sir Thomas Lawrence (1784) and Sir John Millais (1839).
  • n4. Most of the information given here has been derived from Sir Henry Trueman Wood's History of the Royal Society of Arts, which gives a very full and interesting account both of the building and of the Society's activities.
  • 74. A. Bolton, The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam.
  • 119. D.N.B.
  • 323. Information supplied by the Surveyor of the Adelphi Estate.
  • 324. Life of Frederick Reynolds.